Though they don’t play every years, USC and Washington may be forever linked because of their last matchup as well as a coach they shared in the recent past.
When the Huskies beat USC 17-12 in October 2015 it sparked the end of Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian’s tenure, as he was fired not long after and replaced by current coach Clay Helton. Sarkisian had previously been head coach at Washington, but after leaving that school to coach the Trojans in 2014 it enabled the Huskies to bring on current coach Chris Petersen.
And that brings us back to Saturday’s battle, which features teams battling for division titles. Washington (9-0, 6-0) is tied with rival Washington State for the North Division lead while USC (6-3, 5-2) has used a five-game win streak to get back into the race for a second straight South title bu trailed Utah by a half-game.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 12
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Place: Husky Stadium, Seattle
Spread: Washington -10 (per OddsShark)
Get the ground game going
Looking for a place when USC’s 2016 offense when from rudderless to focused, and thus productive? The answer is in the rushing numbers, both carries and yards.
During their 1-3 start the Trojans averaged 33.3 carries and 143 yards per game with four rushing touchdowns. In five consecutive wins since then they’ve run 41.4 times per game and gained 267 yards with nine scores, with back-to-back games of 300-plus rushing yards against Arizona and California.
Before that, USC hadn’t run for more than 300 yards in a game since September 2009.
The Trojans have achieved this ground success despite injuries in the backfield. Senior Justin Davis and sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware both missed Saturday’s win over Oregon yet sophomore Ronald Jones II carried the load with 171 yards and four TDs a week after going for a career-best 223 yards.
Protect the passer
The Trojans’ offensive line has held up well this season, with the current group of tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, guards Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao and center Nico Falah combining for 39 starts this season including every starting spot in the last three contests.
Washington has a knack for getting to the quarterback, with 27 sacks, though leading sack man Joe Mathis is out for the year after suffering a foot injury last week at California. He only had five sacks, part of a group effort in rushing the passer, so the Trojans can’t ease up knowing he’s out.
Set up the deep ball
Washington averages 10.3 yards per pass attempt, tied for fifth in FBS and tied for second among schools that attempt at least 15 passes per game. Basically, whenever the Huskies decide to throw the ball it results in a first down, though quite often much more comes of it.
The Huskies have 25 pass plays that have gone for 30 or more yards, fifth-most in the country, on 159 completions and 234 attempts. It’s not that quarterback Jake Browning is constantly launching the ball downfield but when he wants to he’s able to be successful because of how Washington sets up those big plays.
Running backs Lavon Coleman and Myles Gaskin have combined for 1,552 yards on 217 carries, 7.15 yards per touch. With that kind of production on the ground defenses are frequently drawn in by play-action passing, enabling Dante Pettis and John Ross to get behind the secondary.
Of Washington’s 31 pass plays that have gained at least 25 yards, 27 have come on first or second down.
Feed off the crowd
Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seahawks, is widely regarded as one of the loudest stadiums in sports. Husky Stadium isn’t too shabby, either, thanks to a unique design that causes sound to reverberate back and forth from the field to the stands.
While USC’s home field (the Los Angeles Coliseum) holds 23,000 more people it’s a wide open venue that doesn’t hold sound as well. And the Trojans have played only once outside that stadium since Sept. 23, that being an Oct. 15 game at Arizona in front of a sparse crowd.
Washington’s crowd has been integral to its success this season, most notably in the Huskies’ 44-6 breakthrough win over Stanford on Sept. 30 when the noise likely contributed to Stanford committing 11 penalties for 100 yards including two false starts and two delay of game calls.
The redshirt freshman lost a quarterback competition to junior Max Browne during training camp, but after USC’s offense struggled in its first three games Darnold took over the starting job. Not coincidentally, the Trojans have become far more productive with the ball since then.
Darnold has completed at least 62.5 percent of his passes in all six starts, with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions in that stretch. He’s throwing for 289.7 yards per game in those starts and his mobility has helped keep some plays alive.
So much attention has been given to Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers and his varied skill set, allowing for use on offense, defense and special teams. But Jackson’s been doing that for three seasons, scoring 12 touchdowns in his career in four different ways.
This season Jackson’s greatest impact has been in the return game, scoring on a punt return against Utah State and a kickoff return against Utah. He’s had only two carries and has yet to catch a pass but still lines up on offense from time to time and draws plenty of attention from the defense.
Jackson’s defensive work remains strong as well, with two interceptions, a fumble return and six pass breakups.
Browning came to Washington with some legendary high school numbers—he threw a national-record 229 touchdowns at the prep level, including 91 as a senior—but most of his freshman season was spent just getting up to speed. He finished with 16 TDs and 10 interceptions and failed to find the end zone in five of 12 starts.
This year has been far different for Browning, whose 34 TD passes are tied with Toledo’s Logan Woodside for the national lead. In two of his last four games he’s thrown six TDs, setting and matching the school record.
The 34 TDs have come on 220 attempts, or 15.5 percent of the time. The FBS record is 11.6 percent, set by San Diego State’s Dennis Shaw in 1969, and Browning’s 202.79 passer rating is on pace to break former Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson’s FBS mark of 191.78 from 2011.
John Ross III
A knee injury suffered in spring practice robbed Ross of the 2015 season, but you’d never know he had gone through something like that. The junior’s 2016 numbers have been tremendous and any worry that surgery would affect Ross’ speed and agility don’t exist.
The 5’11”, 190-pound Ross has caught 14 touchdowns on 44 receptions, adding a rushing and kickoff return score to his ledger. He’s coming off a career game against California when he had six catches for 208 yards and three TDs including scoring plays of 60 and 67 yards.
After getting blown out by defending national champion Alabama back in September, part of a 1-3 start that included Pac-12 losses at Stanford and Utah, it didn’t look like USC was going to be playing in many meaningful games in November. Then the Trojans won five in a row and now take on another highly ranked team away from home.
But that doesn’t mean the Trojans are approaching Washington as a chance to make up for past failures this season, senior linebacker Michael Hutchings told the Los Angeles Times‘ Zach Helfand:
We’re not really looking for redemption. Just time to focus on a Pac-12 team that just happens to be pretty good. I think that (Alabama loss was) so long ago.
Washington is one of four unbeaten power-conference teams yet found itself fifth in the initial playoff rankings behind one-loss Texas A&M. The Aggies then lost at Mississippi State while Washington went out and dropped 66 on California for its second game with 60-plus points this season.
A snub sure does make for motivation, Huskies quarterback Jake Browning said (per ESPN.com):
I think it’s good. There’s a lot of football left to play. Put us outside the top four and make us earn it.
The fact USC is in a position to repeat as South Division champions is a testament to how well the Trojans have shaken off their 1-3 start and focused on getting better each game. Their five-game win streak has come as a result of a more balanced offense and avoiding big plays on defense, but they’ll need to play their best game of 2016 by a mile to knock off Washington.
Washington is the team under the microscope in this game, the Pac-12’s only real hope of getting back into the playoffs after the league was shut out last season. The best way to ensure that happens is to stay unbeaten, minimizing any impact the Huskies’ weak nonconference schedule could have on their resume.
In many ways this game is like the one earlier in the season against Stanford when Washington had to prove it really deserved all this attention by taking care of one of the Pac-12’s perennial powers. The Huskies will do that once again.
Washington 37, USC 23
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.